China and the Trade in Cloves, Circa 960-1435

China and the Trade in Cloves, Circa 960-1435

By Roderich Ptak

Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 113, No. 1, (1993)

Abstract: Throughout the late medieval period Moluccan cloves were exported to China, where they were mainly used as a breath-sweetener and in pharmacology. Depending on various factors, such as the political situation in the Sulu-Borneo area, this trade was conducted either by way of the Sulu zone or the much longer Java route. After commenting briefly on the commodity itself, the relevant Chinese terminology, and the pattern of trade routes, the present study discusses the institutional framework of this trade and offers some hypotheses concerning its size and possible links to developments in the Euro-Indian arena.

Introduction: One of the most important commodities in early intra-Asian and Euro-Asian trade was cloves. Cloves originated in the Moluccas, in particular from the islands of Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian, Batjan, and Ambon. From these islands cloves were either shipped north, through the Celebes and Sulu Seas into the South China Sea, or sent west, via Ambon and the Java Sea to various destinations in western Indonesia and continental southeast Asia. From such places as Malacca or Palembang cloves were further distributed to the countries and ports bordering the Indian Ocean and, ultimately, to the Near East and Europe. In some cases, ports in western Indonesia and continental southeast Asia also re-exported cloves to China, Japan, and Korea. Hence, China received Moluccan cloves either via the more direct route through the Sulu zone or the much longer route through the Java Sea. It is this pattern of two possible routes for clove shipments to China that with respect to the period c. 1000-1400 – will be one of the points of concern of the present paper.

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